As a technology specialist/computer teacher in a large (850) student elementary school, I have been required to find ways to engage not only the typical 11-year-old fifth-grader but also the five- or six-year-old kindergartener. At first blush this would seem to be an easy task, but with the type of computer program used by the younger student, I found that once the child was into the program with headphones in place, I had no interpersonal interaction with the students. Computer class, especially for the youngest, was becoming impersonal and often intimidating –with little or no continuous interaction from an adult. This was not helped by the bi-weekly schedule that we are forced to use with the lower grades due to the number of classes at the school.
So, how do you make a self-contained computer activity friendly and warm to the kindergartener or first grader?
I took a hint from my background as a media specialist and brought a puppet – Techno Tom – into the mix. Media specialists as well as primary teachers have long used puppets to hold the attention of the youngest students. Puppets allow the teacher to build a bridge between the imaginary into the real. In my case, the puppet allowed me to become a bystander in the role of computer teacher and allowed the students to learn from the imaginary as they bridged into the world of hard drives, monitors and keyboards.
From the first computer class of the year the students became actively engaged in dialog with “Techno Tom”. They learned the minute details and exactness required for computer use from a 12" tiger puppet!
With networking the norm across our large district (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools), students must adapt to the requirements of the network. As migration into large networks occurred in our district, little consideration was given to the younger students. Logging into the network required typing in a seven (yes, seven!) digit number as the “login name”! And, in fact there was no logic. In reply to “User Name,” students were required to type a long number.
Techno Tom to the rescue! A name tag just like the students are required to wear was clipped to Techno so that he could demonstrate to the boys and girls exactly what number to use. Students loved seeing Techno flounder at first with the variety of numbers located on his name tag. (There are two more in addition to his ID!) He was making the same mistakes that the students might encounter. The computer became real. Techno became a hit!
A miniature chair located on my desk beside the computers provides a home for Techno during class, but at other times you will see Techno up and about checking on students as they work through the computer programs. At the end of class he monitors students as they log out and line up quietly. He gives “high-fives” to those standing quietly in line and even gives a kiss on the head to the youngest.
One surprising result of Techno’s residence in the lab has been the surprising response from the older students, and especially the boys. I thought that the older students and boys especially, would be too “worldly” and “grown-up” to want to have much to do with him. But fifth graders, and the boys, just love him, too! Although he does not get out of his chair to teach spreadsheets and Internet searches much, Techno has made computer class a friendly, inviting place where there is, to their surprise, a real, technical person engaging in imagination and fun.
Techno even provides a window into my life as the days go on, something character education advocates say must occur in order for a teacher to be a positive force in a student’s education. Techno wears sweatshirts and T-shirts for teams in the area. He dons a Panthers sweatshirt when the Carolina Panthers have a football game. College T-shirts from UNC-CH, UVA, and Wake Forest are in his wardrobe because my children went to the University of Virginia and Wake Forest. My principal went to Chapel Hill, so Tom HAD to have a Carolina blue T-shirt! Techno will change costumes often so that students notice him. They ask why he has on a particular shirt. This opens the door to discussions that might otherwise be lost.
Techno dons outfits appropriate for the season. He was a witch at Halloween, a turkey at Thanksgiving, and a Santa’s elf at winter holiday season. His first hat was an old fashioned newspaper-folded hat with a small American flag in it. A red, white and blue scarf represented the Blue Ribbon which our school won for the National No Child Left Behind award. Techno is aware of day-to-day happenings in the school and provides that personal atmosphere that previously seemed lacking in the lab.
Techno Tom has helped me take an activity that can often become impersonal and rote and made it fun and engaging for all of the students. He has demonstrated the exacting skills required for computer use in the world today. Techno is a real example that some of those things we “learned in kindergarten” often help out in the fast-paced and sometimes impersonal world of computers and technology.